St Lucia

Very popular as both a family holiday destination and a romantic paradise for honeymooners, St Lucia (pronounced 'Loosha') offers something for everyone. Its beaches are golden or black sand, some with the spectacular setting of the Pitons as a backdrop, and many are favoured by turtles as a nesting site. Offshore there is good diving and snorkelling, with a marine park along part of the west coast. Rodney Bay is one of the best marinas in the West Indies and windsurfing and other watersports are available. The mountainous interior is outstandingly beautiful and there are several forest reserves to protect the St Lucian parrot and other wildlife. Sightseeing opportunities include sulphur springs, colonial fortifications and plantation tours. St Lucia has a rich cultural heritage, having alternated between the French and English colonial powers, both of whom used African slaves, and has produced some of the finest writers and artists in the region. The island has the distinction of having produced two Nobel prize winners, the highest per capita number of Nobel Laureates ever, anywhere.

Getting there

St Lucia is well served with scheduled and charter flights from Europe and North America and you can often pick up quite cheap deals on package holidays. Connections with other islands are good and it is easy to arrange a multi-centre trip. Some flights come via Antigua, and some via Barbados. You can also get to St Lucia by sea from the French Antilles.

Getting around

Bus
is the cheapest means of getting around the island. St Lucia's buses are usually privately owned minibuses and have no fixed timetable, so they may not run when you want them to. The north is better served than the south and buses around Castries and Gros Islet run until 2200, or later for the Fri night jump-up at Gros Islet. There are several
car hire
companies on the island, some of which are open to negotiation, but it is cheaper and more reliable to hire in advance. Castries roads are very congested and there are lots of one-way streets. The West Coast Road is full of mountain curves but has less traffic than the East Coast. Together they present a very scenic drive round the island. If you're
cycling
, the best way to get round the island is anti-clockwise, thus ensuring long but gradual uphills and steep, fast downhills.

Castries

The capital, Castries, is splendidly set on a natural harbour against a mountainous background. Largely rebuilt after being destroyed by four major fires, the last in 1948, the commercial centre and government offices are built of concrete. Only the buildings to the south of Derek Walcott Square and behind Brazil Street were saved. Here you will see late 19th- and early 20th-century French-style wooden buildings with three storeys, their gingerbread fretwork balconies overhanging the pavement. The other area which survived was the1894 iron market on the north side of Jeremie Street. A new market has been built next door to house the many fruit sellers on the ground floor, while on the first floor and in an arcade opposite are vendors of T-shirts, crafts, spices, basket work, leeches and hot pepper sauce. On the eastern side of the old market there is a little arcade with small booths where vendors provide good vegetarian food, Creole meals and local juices. There are duty-free shopping centres for cruise ship passengers at La Place Carenage by the main dock and at Pointe Seraphine to the north . The tallest building in the city is the seven-storey Financial Centre at the corner of Jeremie and Bridge Streets, with a joyous sculpture by local artist, Ricky George.

Derek Walcott Square
was the site of the Place D'Armes in 1768 when the town transferred from Vigie. Renamed Promenade Square, it then became Columbus Square in 1893. In 1993 it was renamed in honour of poet Derek Walcott and contains busts of both Nobel Laureates. It was the original site of the courthouse and the market and is now used for ceremonial occasions and entertainment, including concerts during the Jazz Festival. The library, built by US millionaire Andrew Carnegie, is on its west side. The giant Saman tree in the middle is about 400 years old. On its east side lies the
Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
which bursts into colour inside. Suffused with yellow light, the side altars are often covered with flowers while votive candles placed in red, green and yellow jars give a fairy tale effect. The ceiling, supported by iron arches and braces is decorated with panelled portraits of the apostles. Above the central altar with its four carved screens, the apse ceiling has paintings of five female saints with St Lucy in the centre. The walls have murals by Dunstan St Omer, one of St Lucia's better known artists . They are of the stations of the cross and are unusual in that the people in the paintings are black. The twelve stained glass windows were created by his son, Giovanni.

The ridge of
Morne Fortune
just south of the city centre enjoys wonderful views over Castries and the harbour and receives pleasant breezes to temper the tropical sunshine. For this reason the British built their grand houses up here as well as their military buildings.
Government House
with its curious metalwork crown, is at the top of Morne Fortune and dates from 1895. The house is not open to the public but there is a small museum with a collection of photos artefacts and documents, called
Le Pavillon Royal Museum
, www.stluciagovernmenthouse.com
. There are six historical military sites on Morne Fortune under the control of the
National Trust of St Lucia
, www.slunatrust.org
, who run tours of the area.
Fort Charlotte
, the old Morne Fortune fortress, is now the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College. The Apostles' battery (1888) and Provost's redoubt (1782) have spectacular views, but the best is from the Inniskilling Monument at the far side of the college (just beyond the old Combermere barracks) where you get a fine view of the town, coast, mountains and Martinique. Sir Arthur Lewis, Nobel Laureate in Economics, is buried in front of the monument.

North of Castries

The part of the island to the north of Castries is the principal resort area, it contains the best beaches and the hotels are largely self contained. It is the driest part of the island. The John Compton highway leaves Castries past Vigie Airport and follows the curves of Vigie Beach and Choc Bay. Where the road leaves the bay and just before it crosses the Choc River, a right turn to Babonneau will take you past the
Union Agricultural station
(about one mile), the site of the
Forestry Department Headquarters
, www.geocities.com/sluforestrails
. There is a visitor centre, nature trail and a small, well-run zoo, where you can see indigenous species such as the agouti and the endemic St Lucia parrot as well as iguanas. The Forestry Department organizes hiking across the island .

Rodney Bay

This whole area supports a mass of tourist facilities - hotels, restaurants, shops and clubs - between the lovely beach at Reduit and the first-class Rodney Bay Marina, but it was formerly the site of the
US Naval Air Station of Reduit
. Built in 1941, the Americans made an attempt to reclaim the swamps and the bay was dredged. It was the first of a chain of bases established to protect the Panama Canal and supported a squadron of sea planes. Closed in 1947, it was not until the 1970s when a causeway to Pigeon Island and a marina were built that the wetlands vanished. Take the left turn off the main road at the junction leading to
JQ's Mall
, to reach the hotels and restaurants. At the end of the road there is good access to the beach. Rodney Bay is an excellent base for watersports, both on the beach and from the marina.

The normally sleepy fishing village of
Gros Islet
, just north of the marina, holds a popular jump-up in the street each Friday night, with music, dancing, bars and cheap food (more tourists than locals but enjoyed by night owls). Things start to get lively and loud from 2200-2300.

Pigeon Island

About ¾ mile after Elliot's Shell filling station on the outskirts of Gros Islet, turn left to Pigeon Island National Landmark, once an island, now joined to the mainland by a causeway on which a 300-room hotel (
Sandals Grande
) has been built with a bright blue roof. The
park
, at the end of the causeway was opened by Princess Alexandra on 23 February 1979 as part of St Lucia's Independence celebrations. It has two peaks which are joined by a saddle. The higher rises to about 360 ft. Managed by the National Trust, the island is of considerable archaeological and historical interest. Amerindian remains have been found, the French pirate François Leclerc (known as Jamb de Bois for his wooden leg) used the large cave on the north shore and the Duke of Montagu tried to colonize the island in 1722 (but abandoned it after one afternoon). From here, Admiral Rodney set sail in 1782 to meet the French navy at the Battle of Les Saintes . It was captured in 1795 by the Brigands (French slaves freed by the leaders of the French Revolution) but was retaken in 1798 by the English. Used as a quarantine centre from 1842 it was abandoned in 1904 but became a US observation post during the Second World War. The island finally became the home of Josset Agnes Huchinson, a member of the D'Oyly Carte Theatre who leased the island from 1937 to 1976. The bay became a busy yacht haven and 'Joss' held large parties to entertain the crews. Her abandoned house can still be seen on the south shore of the island. On the lower of the two peaks lies
Fort Rodney
. The small
museum
is in the Officers' Mess and rebuilt to the original design, while upstairs are the offices of the St Lucia National Trust. There are two small beaches on Pigeon Island, which you can get to by water taxi from Rodney Bay if you don't have a car. There are also two beaches on the causeway either side of the Sandals hotel.

North coast

The road north passes through the Cap Estate (golf course and the
Almond at Smugglers
) to
Pointe du Cap
, a viewpoint some 470 ft high with a splendid panorama along the coast. A good circular walk from Gros Islet can be done to
Cas-en-Bas
taking the road past
La Panache Guesthouse
(ask the owner, Henry Augustin for directions if necessary, he is always willing to help) down to the beach, then following tracks north until you reach the golf course, from where you return along the west coast to Gros Islet. Cas-en-Bas beach now has the Cotton Bay resort behind it and the tracks north pass through an area being developed by Cap Estate as a continuation of the golf club, but you will see cacti, wild scenery and Martinique. The sea is too rough to swim.

East coast to Vieux Fort

The transinsular road goes through extensive banana plantations before climbing steeply over the
Barre de l'Isle
, the mountain barrier that divides the island. There
is a short, self-guided trail at the high point on the road between Castries and Dennery, which takes about 10 minutes and affords good views of the rainforest and down the Roseau Valley. There is a small picnic shelter. It can be slippery after rain. The experience is rather spoilt by the noise of traffic. A longer walk to
Mount La Combe
, can also be undertaken from this point, returning on the same trail. Park by a snack bar on the main road where the Forestry Department guides wait. Be careful in this area as it is known as the drug-growing region. Cyclists and hikers have reported that the locals are not particularly friendly and their stares can make you feel uncomfortable.

The road descends through Grande Rivière to
Dennery
where the vegetation is mostly xerophytic scrub. Dennery is set in a sheltered bay with Dennery Island guarding its entrance and dominated by the Roman Catholic church. Here you can see the distinctive St Lucia fishing boats pulled up on the beach. Carved out of single tree trunks, the bows are straight and pointed rather than curved and are all named with phrases such as
God help me
.

Inland from Dennery along the Dennery River, is the
Rainforest Canopy Adventure
, with seven zip lines where you are strapped into a harness and slide down a cable from one platform to another through the forest canopy. Plenty of instruction, excellent guides, and time to look around you on the platforms up in the trees above the river.

Just after Dennery you will see a sign for the
Eastern Nature Trail
, which winds its way along the coast between the road and the sea for 3½ miles from Mandele to Praslin Bay.
Praslin Island
in the bay is one of only two islands where St Lucian whiptails live. They used to live only on Maria Major Island until being successfully introduced here to prevent extinction.

Fregate Islands Nature Reserve
, on the north side of Praslin Bay has two small islands, nesting sites for the frigate bird and the north promontory of Praslin Bay gives a good vantage point. Birds nest on the offshore rocks and a trail runs down to the shore and back up by another route. The dry forest also harbours the trembler, the St Lucian oriole and the ramier. The reserve includes a section of mangrove and is the natural habitat of the boa constrictor.

Despite the whiptails and the birds, this area is being transformed into a major tourist resort, to open in 2008. 554 acres have been absorbed by the construction of the Westin Le Paradis Golf & Beach Resort, which will encompass 300 Westin four-star condo-hotel units, 76 villas, a Greg Norman signature golf course, a 100-slip private marina for yachts up to 150 ft, five star boutique hotel, a spa, shopping and conference facilities.

The village of Praslin is a fishing community known for its traditional boat building. Between Praslin and Mon Repos are the
Mamiku Gardens
, www.mamiku.com
. The botanical gardens and woodland walks on an estate once owned by Baron de Micoud when he was Governor of the island for France in the 18th century but later a British military post. There is an ongoing excavation at Mamiku which is producing interesting finds from the ruins of the house where the British soldiers were surprised and massacred by the Brigands. The gardens are lovely; you can take a guided tour or wander around among the frangipani and ginger lilies with a map and plant guide. There are several different sections, including a bush medicine garden, but every plant is numbered for easy identification. There is also a snack bar and souvenir shop.

Vieux Fort

Vieux Fort is the island's industrial centre, with a Free Zone and the Hewanorra International Airport. It is an active town with a good Saturday market and a lot of traditional housing. The town boasts two new supermarkets in malls,
JQs
and
Julian's
. The latter has a cinema. The police station and post office, on Theodore Street, are right in the middle of the town. The bus terminal is at the end of Clarke Street near the airport.

The perimeter road skirts Anse de Sables beach (excellent kitesurfing and windsurfing), and looks across to the
Maria Islands
. Just offshore, these National Trust islands are home to two endemic reptiles, a colourful lizard and small, rare, harmless snake, the Kouwes snake. The lizard,
Cnemidophorus vanzoi
, is known as
zandoli te
in Creole. The males, about 18 cm long, sport the colours of the national flag. Interpretive facilities are at Anse de Sables, but are not always open. There's a pleasant, small beach on Maria Major, and excellent snorkelling, which makes a good full-day trip. Unauthorized access (including windsurfers from Anse de Sables) to the islands is not allowed. From April to September public access is restricted while seabirds are nesting in their hundreds on the cliffs and on the ground.

Cap Moule à Chique
is the most southerly point on the island, with a lighthouse, from where you can see the Pitons, Morne Gomier (1,028 ft) with Morne Grand Magazin (2,022 ft) behind it. Unfortunately Morne Gimie (3,118 ft) is largely obscured. Further to the east is Piton St Esprit (1,919 ft) and Morne Durocher (1,055 ft) near Praslin.

West coast to Soufrière and the Pitons

The West Coast Road is in excellent condition with good signposting. It is a curvy, but spectacular, drive down to Soufrière. On reaching the
Roseau Valley
, one of the main banana growing areas, take the signposted road to
Marigot Bay
, a beautiful inlet and natural harbour which provided the setting for the 1967 film,
Dr Doolittle
. It supports a large marina and, not surprisingly, a large number of yachts in transit berth here to restock with supplies. There is a police station and immigration post here, bars, disco, restaurants and accommodation.

The main road continues to Soufrière and passes through the fishing villages of
Anse La Raye
and Canaries (no facilities), where you can see old wooden cottages, many of them with attractive decorative details and verandas. Anse La Raye has become very popular for its fish fry on the seafront road on Fridays, which attracts hundreds of people to eat lobster in season and fish and seafood at any time of year, freshly caught and cooked at stalls along the street. During the day the street is lined with souvenir stalls.

Soufrière

After Canaries the road goes inland and skirts Mount Tabac (2,224 ft) before descending into Soufrière. This is the most picturesque and interesting part of the island, with marvellous old wooden buildings at the foot of the spectacular Pitons, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Soufrière dates back to 1713 when Louis XIV of France granted the lands around Soufrière to the Devaux family. The estate subsequently produced cotton, tobacco, coffee and cocoa. During the French Revolution, the guillotine was raised in the square by the Brigands but the Devaux family were protected by loyal slaves and escaped. There are lots of French colonial houses with shutters and overhanging balconies with gingerbread fretwork, creating shady walkways around the square. A market lies to the north of the harbour but the waterfront is the centre of action. The water here is extremely deep and reaches 200 ft only a few yards from the shore, which is why boats moor close in.

To reach
Anse Chastanet
and its marine park from here take the rough track at the north end of the beach (past the yacht club) about one mile. This is an absolute must if you enjoy snorkelling (the south end near the jetty is superb but keep within the roped-off area; the north end is also good with some rocks to explore, but avoid the middle where boats come in). The hotel has a good and inexpensive restaurant (although if you are on a budget you may prefer to take a picnic) and the dive shop is extremely helpful, they will hire out equipment by the hour.

From the square take Sir Arthur Lewis Street east past the church and look for a right hand turning to reach the
Diamond Gardens
. The gardens were developed in 1784 after Baron de Laborie sent samples taken from sulphur springs near the Diamond River to Paris for analysis. They found minerals present which were equivalent to those found in the spa town of Aix-la-Chapelle and were said to be effective against rheumatism and other complaints. The French King ordered baths to be built. Despite being destroyed in the French Revolution, they were eventually rebuilt and can be used by the public. The gardens are better than ever; well maintained and many native plants can be seen.

Take the Vieux Fort road between wooden houses about halfway along the south side of Soufrière square. Follow the road for about two miles and you will see a sign on the left for the
Sulphur Springs
. You will be able to smell the springs before you reach them. Originally a huge volcano about 3 miles in diameter, it collapsed some 40,000 years ago leaving the west part of the rim empty (where you drive in). The sign welcomes you to the world's only drive-in volcano, although actually you have to stop at a car park. The sulphur spring is the only one still active, although there are seven cones within the old crater as well as the pitons which are thought to be volcanic plugs. Tradition has it that the Arawak deity
Yokahu
slept here and it was therefore the site of human sacrifices. The Caribs were less superstitious but still named it
Qualibou
, the place of death. Water is heated to 180°F and in some springs to 275°F. It quickly cools to about 87°F below the bridge at the entrance. From the main viewing platform, you can see over a moonscape of bubbling, mineral rich, grey mud.

South of Soufrière

Petit Piton
(743 m/2,437 ft) is a volcanic plug rising sheer out of the sea and since June 2004 a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with its sister,
Gros Piton
(770 m/2,526 ft). It is a focal point of all views around Soufrière. It is possible to climb Petit Piton, an extremely steep ascent, but it is not encouraged. Local guides will take you up for about US$50, but it is dangerous and you will be damaging the mountain. In the valley between Petit Piton and Gros Piton, a luxury all-inclusive resort,
Jalousie Plantation Resort and Spa
, has been built despite complaints from ecological groups and evidence from archaeologists that it is located on a major Amerindian site. An important burial ground is believed to be under the tennis courts and there have been many finds of petroglyphs and pottery. A rather fine petroglyph is at the back of the beach in front of Lord Glenconner's
Bang Between the Pitons
. Lord Glenconner used to own much of the land here. Take the turning opposite the Morne Coubaril Estate (closed) on the unsigned concrete road. Halfway along the drive to
Jalousie
you will see a little sign to a small, warm waterfall on your left. Someone will collect about US$2 for access. Relax in the warm waters.

South of Soufrière, near Union Vale estate, is the
Gros Piton Trail
. The village of
Fond Gens Libre
is at the base of the mountain, accessible by jeep or high-clearance car although you will have to ford a couple of streams. The trip up and back is about four hours through the different ecosystems of the mountain, with stops to look at brigand caves and tunnels. It is strenuous, so you must be in good physical condition. It should not be attempted in wet weather even though the trail has been improved.

Diving and marine life

There is some very good diving off the west coast, although this is somewhat dependent on the weather, as heavy rain tends to create high sediment loads in the rivers and sea. Diving off the east coast is not so good and can be risky unless you are a competent diver. One of the best beach entry dives in the Caribbean is directly off
Anse Chastanet
, where an underwater shelf drops off from about 10 ft down to 60 ft and there is a good dive over
Turtle Reef
in the bay, where there are over 25 different types of coral. Below the
Petit Piton
are impressive sponge and coral communities on a drop to 200 ft of spectacular wall. There are gorgonians, black coral trees, huge barrel sponges and plenty of other beautiful reef life. The area in front of the
Anse Chastanet Hotel
is a buoyed-off Marine Reserve, stretching from the west point at
Grand Caille North
to
Chamin Cove
. Only the hotel boats and local fishermen's canoes are allowed in. By the jetty, a roped-off area is used by snorkellers and beginner divers. Other popular dive sites include
Anse L'Ivrogne
,
Anse La Raye Point
(good snorkelling also at
Anse La Raye
) and the
Pinnacles
(an impressive site where four pinnacles rise to within 10 ft of the surface), not forgetting the
wrecks
, such as the
Volga
(in 20 ft of water north of Castries harbour, well broken up, subject to swell, requires caution), the
Waiwinette
(several miles south of Vieux Fort, strong currents, competent divers only), and the 165-ft
Lesleen M
(deliberately sunk in 1986 off Anse Cochon Bay in 60 ft of water).

Visitors must dive with a local company. It is illegal to take any coral or undersized shellfish. Corals and sponges should not even be touched. It is also illegal to buy or sell coral products on St Lucia. The
Soufrière Marine Management Association
preserves the environment between Anse Chastanet and Anse L'Ivrogne to the south. They have placed moorings in the reserve, which yachts are required to take, charges are on a sliding scale depending on the size of the boat. Collection of marine mammals (dead or alive) is prohibited, spearguns are illegal and anchoring is prohibited. Rangers come by at night to collect the fee and explain the programme.

Hiking and birdwatching

St Lucia has an extensive network of trails maintained by the Forestry Department, for which you need a permit (usually US$10, half price for children), payable at the entrance or in advance. Guides are available at the start of most trails (Monday to Friday 0830-1500), or you can reserve
one for a different time or at weekends for an extra charge; they are particularly useful if you want to set off early to sight birds at dawn, but they are not mandatory. In the north of the island is the
Forestière Rainforest Trail
, a 3-mile, two-hour walk along part of an old road from Castries to Gros Islet.
La Sorcière
and
Piton Flore
are densely forested mountains in the north with excellent rainforest vegetation. Piton Flore can be walked up in 40 minutes although it is a strenuous climb and you will need to ask how to get to the top, from where there are spectacular views. It is the last recorded location of Semper's warbler. There is a good chance of seeing the St Lucian parrot on the
Barre de l'Isle Rainforest Walk
. The
Des Cartiers Rainforest Trail
starts 6 miles west of Mahaut on the east coast and is a loop of about 2½ miles taking around two hours through thick rainforest perfect for birdwatching, with many of the endemics found here. You can stay overnight by prior arrangement at a very basic lodge called
La Porte
, if you want to see parrots at dawn. On the west coast is access to the
Millet Bird Sanctuary Trail
, which meanders around the lake and the catchment area of the Roseau Dam through secondary rainforest, and is particularly good for birdwatching. The Forestry Department tour is US$30. In the
Edmond Forest Reserve
is the
Enbas Saut Trail
(below the falls), moderate to strenuous, at the foot of Mount Gimie, with a combination of rainforest, cloud forest and elfin woodlands. The 2½-mile trail with 2,112 steps has been cut down to the Troumassée river, where there are a couple of waterfalls and a pool where you can bathe. The
Edmond Rainforest Trail
runs through the forested heart of the island and, with prior arrangement, you can hike all the way across, joining up with the Des Cartiers Rainforest trail in the east.

Sailing

At Marigot Bay and Rodney Bay you can hire any size of craft, the larger ones coming complete with crew if you want. Many of these yachts sail down to the Grenadines. Rodney Bay has been developed to accommodate 1,000 yachts and hosts the annual Atlantic Rally for Cruisers race, with about 250 yachts arriving there in December. There is an annual regatta to coincide with the boats leaving the Canary Islands. Charters can be arranged to sail to neighbouring islands. Soufrière has a good anchorage, but as the water is deep it is necessary to anchor close in. There is a pier for short term tie-ups.

As some of the best views are from the sea, it is recommended to take at least one boat trip. There are several boats which sail down the west coast to Soufrière, where you stop to visit the volcano and some local sights, followed by lunch and return sail with a stop somewhere for swimming and snorkelling. The price usually includes all transport, lunch, drinks and snorkelling gear.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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